Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Pennsylvania Elk: A Native Species?

A common complaint by opponents of Pennsylvania’s elk program is that elk are a non-native species and thus should not have been reintroduced into the state. This is usually followed by a complaint that they utilize resources that would be better expended on managing public lands for more whitetail deer. Many feel that the elk directly compete with the deer for food and their presence results in less deer.

These folks overlook a few facts in arriving at these conclusions.

Historically there was little regulation of hunting in Pennsylvania, and most importantly there was no agency charged with the management and protection of wildlife! Whatever laws that did exist, had little possibility of being enforced.. This eventually resulted in the decimation of many wildlife species. In time it became obvious that something must be done or much of our wildlife heritage would be lost forever.

It is generally accepted that elk were completely extirpated from the state, although it is possible but not likely that a very few animals did survive in the more remote regions.

Whitetail deer were not extirpated but their numbers were extremely low.

The Pennsylvania Game Commission was founded in 1895 to address this situation. Of course the agency dealt with numerous species, but we will restrict the discussion to deer and elk.

There seemed to be little hope for a speedy recovery of deer numbers by protecting only the remaining native deer, so the agency stocked deer for several years. The first animals were from Michigan while others were obtained from a variety of eastern states, many of them farm raised deer.

Elk were re-introduced by stocking animals from Yellowstone National Park, so we actually have western elk in Pennsylvania, but are these in fact non-native animals or some would say an invasive species? I think not!

In my humble opinion, to remain logically consistent they must either concede that both elk and whitetail deer are native to the state, but were eliminated or nearly so by improper management.

Most if not all of the elk are western elk and most of the deer are descended from animals that were from states other than Pennsylvania, therefore if deer are “native” animals and have a right to be here, then so does the elk!

Elk Grazing in a food plot of buckwheat: Canon 10D 70-200mmF2.8 (90mm)

Elk and deer share the food plot: Canon XL-H1 Camcorder

Whitetail bucks at Hick's Run Viewing Area: Canon XL-H1 Camcorder

Do they actually compete for food resources?

The accepted view is that deer are primarily browsing animals, while elk mostly feed by pasturing. Personally I have seen both animals engaged in both types of feeding, but it doesn’t seem likely that the elk significantly impact deer numbers as complaints about low deer numbers in the northcentral region of the state are not confined to the elk range. Unless a crop is destroyed by severe drought, I have not seen elk eliminate all the forage in a meadow, but I have seen food plots with lush forage that are not being utilized by significant numbers of deer. A shortage of deer must be blamed on other factors than the presence of elk! In fact the elk habitat management program has the side effect of producing better habitat for whitetails also!

I think we should be pleased that this magnificent animal is once again roaming the mountains and meadows of Pennsylvania!


ASH's Eye said...

I might be wrong, but I'm pretty sure bison roamed this far east once upon a time. Lets bring them back, too!

I'm kidding about the bison, but I think you make excellent points, given the history of the two animals' populations.

Do western elk and mule deer compete for the same resources? Seems like they've been living in close proximity, successfully, for a long time.

Willard said...

You have an excellent point about the western elk and the mule deer!

Anonymous said...

Beautiful photography, Willard. To clarify Bison in Pennsylvania and Ohio and other states in the area, yes, they were an abundant species here in days gone by. They were called the "wood bison" for living in forests and were slightly smaller than the plains bison.

I wrote a book about the Buffalo and Indians, a long time ago, and discovered this country was covered with more than 60 million buffalo of which the wood was one of them.

Abraham Lincoln in Brookville, Ohio

fishing guy said...

Willard: It's hard to believe that people would be complaining about having a beautiful animal like the Elk in the PA woods. I enjoy seeing them in your photos and also the photo of the deer in velvet. Keep up your good fight.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, but why do people complain about having elk around?
It's seems such a fine animal.

Stacey Huston said...

I really liked your post today. I find it ironic that people back east would be complaining about having elk reintroduced, yet feel that they can protect the wolf and griz here in the west... I am not saying I am anti or pro wolf and griz, I just found your post very intreaging. Thanks for the thought provoking entry Willard.. Great photos by the way.

Willard said...

To All,
Not many complain about the elk, but there is one very vocal outdoor media personality who does. I have heard some other negative input, but none of quite the level that he produces.

Mike "Hawk" Huston said...

My argument to those opposed to the reintroduction of a species once native to the area is simple. If they are going to stand by that position then stey should remember that they, unless of native american descent, are an introduced species and should keep their opinions to themselves. Hawk a/ho

Willard said...

You have an excellent point, I never thought of that one!


Wonderful shots


Old Wom Tigley said...

Hi Willard..
Well I have read this twice now.. and I've got to say that I cannot add anything to your arguement.. you have all the bases well and truely covered. You echo my thoughts on this.. I also agree with Fishing Guys comment about these beatiful animals..
Great Pictures again.. and even showing them all eating in the same place at the same time.. ;o)

Swamp Thing said...

I'm ecstatic somebody else remembered wood bison!

I had a bird habitat plan denied in Delaware because one grass species, while being common in Delaware thanks to migratory birds, is actually native to the Great Lakes...but not Delaware.

The only realistic goal for our success - and that of future generations - is to preserve and manage plants and wildlife that are solely North American in origin. If we accomplish that (the odds are stacked against us), then we will be heros. With invasive introductions via shipping, highways, the nursery trade, sea level rise, climate change, etc., that idealistic "locally endemic" argument is going to disappear 10 years from now.

Gretchen said...

More gorgeous photos. I was in Benezette earlier today and saw more elk than ever before. They have such a presence that you just have to stop.

Marvin said...

I don't really disagree with you, Willard -- and I certainly cannot make an intelligent comment on the situation in Pennsylvania. Still, here in Arkansas I do sometimes feel that too much attention and resources are focused on our relatively recently re-introduced elk solely because they are a large GAME species. Overall habitat protection and securing the natural areas we still have left seems a better use of our limited resources to me. (I know that state wildlife officials would tell me that they are working on habitat protection and that managing the re-introduced elk does not hamper those ongoing efforts. They would also point out that the largest chunk of their budget comes hunters and fishermen and, therefore, an emphasis on game species is justified.)

Swamp Thing said...

Those are great points Marvin. I know in Maryland, nearly all ongoing "trap and relocate" programs for any wildlife have ended. Even amphibians and bog turtles.

Just too expensive per animal, when subdivisions and highways are tearing up habitat every single day.